Archive | July, 2017

Strangers in the Night:  Recovering the Risks of Friendship, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Jul

Barbed Wire 2

Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.  Helen Keller

Great perils have this beauty that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers. Victor Hugo

The language of friendship is not words but meanings.  Henry David Thoreau

This week at the UN “featured” what appears to be a growing rift between the increasingly abusive and defiant government of Burundi and the concerns of the international community; a lack of “positive news” (ASG Muller) on still-besieged areas in Syria with nothing even approximating positive news on Yemen or Gaza; and renewed violence in the Central African Republic which mourned a new round of peacekeeper casualties.

Given all this, and throw the DPRK into the mix, and it surely must seem like a policy cop-out to reference this International Day of Friendship, one of the UN’s “can’t we just all get along” moments that might well seem superfluous to the serious policy challenges on our plate, including those related to the vast human mobility which seems now to have stretched our resources and caring capacities up to and even past their limit.

So much of migration now is what the UN policy community refers to as “irregular,” what the rest of us might well refer to as “forced.”  People on the move less for economic opportunity or a fresh start but to escape horrific conditions of war and its remnants, of drought and its famines, of atrocities and their multiple scars. Families escaping bombs they neither built nor dropped; drought and food insecurity from climate change they did virtually nothing to impact; atrocities perpetrated against them based on culture and genetics more than on any active political resistance or military threat.

And, as we know, the uncertain path forward for many fleeing insecurity is lined with more of the same.  Securing adequate family sustenance can be every bit as much a challenge on the move as it was in the drought and conflict zones from which they fled.  Traffickers abound and prey on vulnerabilities of all kinds, offering false hope to persons otherwise verging on “no hope” at all.   Abuses at the hands of those ostensibly providing “protection” simply magnify the insecurity, especially for children cut off from any modicum of protection that families might otherwise have provided.  And that barbed wire at the end of what is often a long and life-threatening journey is perhaps the strongest sign of people once betrayed by much of global governance and the human family who have been forsaken yet again.

As we have noted often, and as has been carefully and compassionately documented in “Turning Strangers into Friends,” edited by Liberato Bautista on behalf of Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM),  the “regular” migration that is the goal of UN policy deliberations can be fraught with its own dangers: hostility at airports and border crossings; icy stares from persons on the street who believe that any stranger represents a danger;  threats from states to deport even single parents from family units; employers all-too-willing to cheat or abuse employees on the assumption that legal systems are mostly disinterested in migrants’ rights.

And as Bautista and colleagues have summarized in their Talking and Doing Points issued prior to their recent Berlin consultation, these are only a few of the factors that compromise the safety and dignity of “uprooted peoples,” factors that demand good policy from institutions like the UN but also more consistent and person-centered hospitality from those who claim to value dignity for all. The UN is trying to do its part to overcome some residual state resistance to the establishment and dissemination of a Global Compact on Migration that will hopefully facilitate safer, orderly and more “regular” migration patterns.   A Compact-related consultation held at the UN this week, chaired ably by Mexico and Switzerland and featuring Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour, stressed a number of important points for the migration policy community including the right of voluntary return, the importance of protecting (and even expanding) remittances, the need for more accurate data on all aspects of human mobility, the value of providing proper “documentation” for migrants and rethinking restrictions on “dual citizenship,” the many cultural and capacity benefits of “diaspora outreach,” and the need to step up “conflict prevention” efforts to help stem the flow of persons who feel that they have no option but to flee bombs overhead and landmines under foot.

There was even welcome discussion of the importance of moving beyond “whole of government” to “whole of society” approaches to addressing migration’s opportunities and challenges.  This point had particular resonance for us. “Turning strangers into friends,” accompanying those in ways we would wish to be accompanied, is not only about having the right national and global policies, not only about having the most progressive words appear in our declarations and resolutions, but about having the proper dispositions in communities; about seeing ourselves, indeed our common survival, reflected in the often fearful eyes of those who now appear as strangers to us.

This disposition remains in distressingly short supply, both within and outside communities of faith.

Even in a city like New York, which prides itself on its many cultures and more recently its resistance to new US federal policies clamping down on migrants of all stripes, there is a need to up our game on the hospitality, “mercy” and friendship called for by the CWWM.  For too many of us, even now, the promise of diversity is only casually engaged.   We sample the food of migrants but rarely share their dreams.   We attend the festivals of migrants but are mostly absent from their logistical challenges and major life transitions.  We are tolerant of migrants’ presence but mostly stick closely (on and off our phones) to our smaller, like-minded circles.

With all due regard for the “compassion fatigue” that seems to be sweeping the planet, and with all blessings extended to those who put their safety on the line every day to care for the otherwise forsaken, hospitality and friendship for migrants must become a long-term commitment for more of the rest of us.  This is not some pious liberal call, but rather stems from a belief — abundant evidence for which emerges regularly from UN conference room — that the factors pushing people to risk the lives of their children to escape the carnage of their daily lives are likely to grow in number and intensity, at least for the time being.

So while we are urgently figuring out a plan to regulate the growing ranks of the  unregulated, while this clock counting down the deadline for our common survival is still ticking, we have urgent work to do ourselves, to do on ourselves.   We have to find better ways to keep our hearts open, to offer friendship and hospitality that is not about charity but about, as noted by Lester Ruiz, “the opportunity to live well together in the context of our shared differences.”   And we must learn how to accompany others recovering from a displacement they so often did not choose, in part as a means of learning how we would wish to be accompanied when it is our turn to face grave insecurity.

This is friendship in the best sense, the friendship that walks in as others are running out, that absorbs anxieties when others are pushing them away, and that elicits practical offers of hospitality beyond the boundaries of personal convenience.   This is the friendship I have been blessed to receive over and over in my life.  This is friendship worthy of our times, practices that can bring deeper meaning to policies directed towards that “fraternity of strangers” longing to find their way home.

Culture Club:  Linking Policy and Inspiration in UN Contexts:  Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Jul

Plane Crash

To build a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just. And how can we fight for liberty if we not free in our own minds? How can we ask others to sacrifice if we are not ready to do so?  Dag Hammarskjöld

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. Aristotle

Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste. Charlotte Brontë

Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is made clean again. Dag Hammarskjöld

This week marks what would be the 112th birthday of the legendary Dag Hammarskjöld, one of the very few persons whose mention still evokes awe inside the UN even if most of his thoughtful wisdom has been relegated to the sidelinesof “quaintness” by a political system that has become much too “inspiration resistant.”

As many of you know, Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash under what are still deemed to be suspicious circumstances.   These have been the subject of General Assembly resolutions and a 2015 Panel of Experts report that has stoked further interest in what we still don’t know about the crash, what intelligence files might still exist that could shine light on what is a yet-unresolved 56 year old tragedy.

It is relatively easy, I suppose, to revere figures from our past as they are no longer around to annoy us or get in our way.   And it is relatively easy to sideline the values-driven perspectives of a Hammarskjöld as the product of a global order characterized by considerably fewer (almost entirely western) centers of political and economic influence than what we know today.   To be clear, the UN of Hammarskjöld’s time had to accommodate far fewer member states represented by far more male delegates.  Beyond the rightful preoccupations of the time with decolonization, the dominant, bipolar power dynamics were focused on how to prevent the early stages of “cold war” from becoming dangerously heated.

But that the values of Hammarskjöld might not any longer be wholly “appropriate” to the activities and constituencies of the UN does not imply that issues of the UN’s culture and purpose to which he pointed should be abandoned outright.  Our dreams and aspiration to clean the messes we failed to prevent and fix what is broken — these still matter.   Our need to embody the courage, forgiveness and other traits of character that we expect from those we deign to lead — this still matters, too.  The importance of aspiring to be more than just “good enough” in these dangerous and treacherous times — this perhpas matters more than ever.

There are places throughout the UN where vestiges of this interest in how we do our general business, including our obligations to one another, remains.  In the Security Council debate this week on African Peace and Security, and during meetings of the Peacebuilding Commission, the Japanese Ambassador both lamented and challenged the current proclivity inside the UN to “chase conflict,” a chase that exhausts human capital, compromises the trust of peoples and states, and creates both massive victim heartbreak and senseless finger pointing by states who never seem to get around to pointing fingers at themselves.

In this current Security Council configuration elected members Sweden and Uruguay are among those that continue to press regularly for a more thoughtful, humane policy culture. Sweden has kept up pressure on colleagues to honor promises to gender equity, to the rights of displaced persons, and to full-spectrum, collaborative engagements on peace and security with the Peacebuilding Commission and other UN and regonal entities. Uruguay for its part has demonstrated a relentless regard for the anxious impatience of the wider UN membership with progress on peace, as well as the will to do what few other state representatives in New York are encouraged or authorized to do – remind the large powers of their occasional duplicities on armed violence, on respect for human rights, on protection of civilians, and on their rush to coercive responses to conflicts that require above all else honest political dialogue.

Beyond the Council, also noteworthy for us this week was a presentation in the Economic and Social Council High-level segment on the eradication of poverty by Fatoumata Jallow-Tanbajang, Minister of Women’s Affairs of Gambia.  The Minister, whose country recently and only narrowly avoided a major crisis of political transition with its related allegations of theft and corruption, could have been forgiven for taking a “fingers crossed” approach to the general implementation of the sustainable development goals, not to mention her country’s own potential to meet their SDG targets.

She did nothing of the sort.  Instead, Minister Jallow-Tanbajang laid out one the most hopeful, inspiring messages of the entire week.  She spoke honestly about addressing the “diaspora” arising in part from years of political turmoil that drained the talent now badly needed at home.  She stressed concrete efforts to bring about social cohesion in a state “that has been divided for too long.”  And, quite remarkably, she advocated for both “freedom” and “happiness” as viable indicators of development success, understanding that the quality of societies is at least roughly equivalent to the quality of the lives of its inhabitants.  As a statement on the importance of promoting a humane and sustainable national culture, this was without peer.

Indeed, there are many times when we find ourselves longing for more of this honest, determined, people-centered discourse. Global Action is fortunate to have among the more diverse cohorts of interns and fellows of any group at the UN.  It is an important commitment for us – a testament both to the vast pools of talent that lie still unrepresented in this world, and the need for this talent to spend enough time inside the UN to determine if there is room for them here, room where they might cultivate their policy voices and become models for the world they are anxious themselves to build.

The answer is often, sometimes wistfully, “no.”

As I understand it, this “no” is not a rejection of the opportunity which the UN presents or the extraordinary learning space it represents; nor is it an indictment of what or how much the UN is doing to engage global threats. There is simply no way, in our view, to argue that the UN is not addressing the most crucial issues of our times, from oceans to nuclear weapons.  It is, though, an open (if respectful) question as to whether the general UN culture is honest enough, thoughtful enough, determined enough, to deliver on its essential promises.  The issue here, certainly for our young people, is not if our policies are pointed in the right direction, which they most assuredly are, but whether our hearts and hands are directed similarly.  This matters to them, as it should matter to us all.

The “dream of a miracle” to which Hammarskjöld attested is hopefully one that has not gone out of style, has not been doused by our political maneuvering and predatory economics, let alone by our institutional incapacity to concede and forgive. As the Gambian minister noted this week, “We have suffered, but we are not crying.  We will stand tall.”  If we are to stop chasing conflicts rather than resolving them; if we are to find the persistence needed to bring the hope of sustainable development to wary and oft-neglected communities; if we are to retain the interest of the young talent that has been attracted by our lofty promises; then we will need to stand taller in this global policy space as well, mastering even more than we have at present the determination to fix what is broken and clean what is soiled.

Show and Tell: Advertising Tools and Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Jul


I regard it as a waste of time to think only of selling: one forgets one’s art and exaggerates one’s value. Camille Pissarro

I wish that television would stop selling our hatred of ourselves, and start seducing us with our love of ourselves. Dan Harmon

If government were a product, selling it would be illegal. P. J. O’Rourke

This was “experts” week at the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF), organized under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council.  The task of the HLPF is “follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) with an emphasis on six of the goals (such as health, gender, oceans), as well as on voluntary national reviews of SDG progress.

The global backdrop for this HLPF cried out for clarity and inspiration. For  instance, many readers of this blog will have seen footage of an iceberg the size of the state of Delaware breaking off from Antarctica, an event that might not have been the direct result of climate change per se but which portends additional ice-shelf cleavage with ever-greater risks to the rising (and desalinization) of our seas.

Moreover, the Security Council gathered this week to assess the ever-deteriorating situation in Yemen, now characterized by almost unimaginable rates of famine and cholera.  As is often the case in the Council, Uruguay issued its thoughtful warning, looking permanent Council members (the UK and US) in the eye while reminding them that it is their weapons sales that are enabling so much of the Yemeni carnage.

And of course, there are the ubiquitous nuclear provocations emanating from North Korea (DPRK) with resulting (and also provocative) military exercises from the US and South Korea, a scenario as likely to spark new conflict as to calm its prospects.

The “experts’ week” of the High Level Political Forum largely dodged such security and climate concerns – a well-attended, early-morning side event on the human rights dimensions of development was a relatively rare exception.  Instead, other helpful sessions called attention to gaps in data and access to scientific research relevant to sustainable development. Moreover, some of the “spotlight” on development funding added excellent value, especially that which sought to understand the nature and challenges of corporate finance in the overall development agenda.  What was missing for us is analysis of the implications from the vast sums already being pledged by state and non-state entities to clean up horrific messes in the aftermath of the devastating climate disasters and armed conflicts raging worldwide.  The more funding is required for such victim response, the less is available to build the health, nutrition, and gender architecture, let alone for poverty alleviation and infrastructure development.

Despite a spate of human-made crises testing the limits of human response, there was in evidence a fair amount of “salesmanship” at this HLPF “experts’ week.” We are used to some of this at UN Headquarters – endless events promising audience “dialogue” but which are really opportunities for UN agencies and carefully selected NGOs to promote their relevance to the governments on which they largely depend for funding.  These podium-focused, statement-driven, speaker-overloaded events, which largely obscure what is often considerable audience expertise, often add more sales potential than policy significance.  Indeed, much of this HLPF “experts week” was more like “show and tell” and less like an open-ended conversation about relevant tools, needs and challenges with diverse peer stakeholders.

The nature of “the sale” has always been an interest of mine, in part because I’m so inept at it.  Unlike some people who scroll through commercials to get to the programs, I will spend occasional evenings doing the opposite – focusing on commercials instead of programs and discovering the following:

  • There are some incredibly clever people working in advertising; in an age that is suspicious of organized religion and has largely abandoned psychology, advertisers seem to have forged the principle path to our souls, convincing most of us that, in essence, “we are what we own.“
  • Where advertisers target young people, and they do quite often, they clearly see them mostly as distracted narcissists. According to commercials, young people do little but party, drive hot cars on deserted urban streets, stare at their phones and go on holidays; all with ample quantities of time and money.  Aside from their consumption patters, they apparently aren’t to be taken seriously any more than poor, disabled or indigenous people are to be taken seriously.
  • The essence of advertising remains as it has been – describing/inventing a problem for which a particular product becomes a kind of “savior.” Sadly, the problems that advertisers address seem as petty and distracting as ever, especially problematic given the global crises clamoring for attention.
  • Advertisers don’t worry about whether their products are actually needed or particularly relevant to the lives they touch. And they certainly don’t concern themselves with the implications of acquisition for emotional or fiscal health, let alone for the ability to obtain more essential goods and services.  Once advertisers convince you to purchase, the job is done.
  • Advertisers keep tight control over their narrative. There is little doubt expressed, no shortage of enthusiasm for the brand, no contrariness emanating from the “real people” who increasingly populate commercials.  With few exceptions (and there are some) advertisers only acknowledge competitors to expose their flaws, their limitations, none of which apparently pertain to the product they themselves are offering.

Given this overview, it might seem impertinent to call attention to the “salesmanship” of something as important as the HLPF, but the reference is not completely without merit.  Most HLPF events were, indeed, tightly managed with emphasis on what we’re doing more than on what we’ve neglected.   Discussions on specific tools too often obscured the contributions of the larger sector and even more often neglected discussion of the tools we still need and have yet to develop.  And while some states (Belgium, Finland, Argentina and others) tried to open up space for youth and persons with disabilities, grumblings in the hallways regarding the absence in sessions of the people living in poverty, indigenous persons and other “marginal” stakeholders were frequent.

And through all of this, as our interns would likely attest, there was a decided lack of bold inspiration, a clear show of unscripted determination that we can get through this deep valley  of deprivation if only we can find ways  to commit more and pull together better, to include more and listen better.  (Indeed, this was the way in which the HLPF was least like a sales event.)

Starting Monday, a steady stream of ministers will come to the UN to report on progress on national implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  These ministers will surely tell us what they’re doing to achieve SDG targets or, more to the point, what they want us to believe they are doing.  What we are sure to hear less about (and need to hear more) is which of their commitments are actually taking root, actually mobilizing public participation, actually impacting public attitudes and the behaviors that flow from them.

And many UN agencies and NGOs will be following these potential funders with interest, anxious to convince officials that what these stakeholders are doing is good (which it certainly is) and sufficient (which it certainly is not).  Indeed, we are collectively losing ground in several critical areas, including with regard to the security arrangements that can provide a predictable and rights-based development environment, and the climate arrangements that can possibly keep us under the 2 degree threshold on which our future upon this planet likely depends.

With all due deference to the many, mostly useful policy tools and suggestions on display at the HLPF, and while endorsing the importance of preserving the indivisibility of the SDGs, we must not take our eye off these larger threats.  If we fail on climate and security, we risk an endless string of gender-balanced armed conflicts; technologically advanced cities under water; sustainable farms “baked to a crisp;” and educated children who find themselves graduating without a viable, livable planet to inherit.

This would be the ultimate, tragic irony for our global system: so many billions having been spent to promote community well-being and political and economic inclusion on a planet that at times seems on its way to becoming a war-ravaged hot-house. Unless we can together find ways to inspire deeper commitments to peace and climate health, including among our development and other UN sales partners, this is one irony that we might not be around long enough to assess.

Truth or Consequences:  The UN Takes a Risk on Sustainable Security, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Jul

Security is mostly a superstition. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.  Helen Keller

We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Distrust and caution are the parents of security. Benjamin Franklin

It was a pretty good week at the UN for the young people of the world, those who are destined to inherit the consequences of our wars and famines, our grave challenges and too-often incomplete policy responses.

Media headlines have recently focused on North Korea missile launches and G-20 divisions largely involving the United States and climate change, and there were certainly some tense moments this week in the Security Council as US Ambassador Haley threatened colleagues with unilateral action in the absence of a viable, collective response to North Korean “provocations.”

But for the most part, at least at the UN, it was a hopeful time for the planet.  In the Economic and Social Council, Secretary General Guterres outlined his “8 Point Plan” for the UN development system that wisely focuses on service results and less on bureaucratic structures, “more on people and less on process. “  And the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) hosted two days of important discussions designed to honestly assess and carefully address what was seen by presenters as a growing threat by terrorists to civil aviation.

Beyond this, there were two other events of considerable significance at the UN that would have done well to take greater note of each other.

As we mentioned last week, the UN has been involved in a process to prohibit the development, possession, stockpiling and certainly the use of nuclear weapons.  The so-called “Ban Treaty” was adopted on Friday to thunderous and well-deserved applause.  The 122 states that supported adoption –none of which were weapons-possessing states nor the principle, alleged “beneficiaries” of nuclear weapons “umbrellas” – believe that they have set in motion a process that will eventually lead to the total elimination of such weapons.  Whether that happens or not, whether the treaty ultimately strengthens or weakens the resolve of nuclear weapons states to invest in weapons development and modernization, the adopting states have declared once and for all their rejection of deterrence-based security doctrines; indeed their full independence from the erstwhile allures of nuclear weapons culture. As such, the “space” for that culture has shrunk once more, hopefully soon to be replaced by a security culture that is far more people centered and far less weapons driven.

One of the “complaints” about the Ban Treaty is that it didn’t go far enough when it had the chance to do so, didn’t enact prohibitions that sufficiently covered all aspects of what had become a dominant, pervasive and dangerous nuclear weapons culture.  Some of these alleged deficits were a function of the limited time granted to negotiators; some were surely related to relatively weak structures of governance and accountability within the treaty: and some were surely based on the fear of some that strict and comprehensive prohibitions would only increase the prospect that nuclear weapons states would choose to maintain their distance from the treaty, thus making the goal to which the treaty points – weapons elimination – that much less likely.

Perhaps ironically and at virtually the same moment that the “Ban Treaty” was being adopted in UN Conference Room 1, a complementary event was called to order upstairs. Chaired by Panama on behalf of the Human Security Network, a group of over a dozen member states committed to the full implementation of General Assembly resolution 66/290, this gathering underscored the degree to which human security “recognizes the interlinkages between peace, development and human rights, and equally considers civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.”

All presenters at the session highlighted one or more aspects of these bold and comprehensive linkages. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed reinforced the degree to which a human security framework is well suited to address poverty in all its aspects and manifestations as well as provide a framework for preventing conflict and addressing natural disasters and climate-related impacts.  Other speakers on the panel used the examples of disaster response (Mexico) and refugee flows (Jordan) to underscore the “human security” priorities of sound risk assessment, comprehensive analysis, local capacity assistance, and the cooperative, diverse stakeholder engagement specifically urged by Panama.

We heard only one vague reference to the “Ban Treaty” adoption in this Human Security session, and there was certainly no recognition of the latter in the former.  But from our standpoint these rooms were clearly pulling in similar directions, trying to address not only weapons, but their culture; not only conflicts but their multiple triggers and enablers.  As with the “Ban Treaty,” the large and powerful states were almost entirely absent from the Human Security discussions.  Thus it was left to both rooms –mostly independently of one another–to create signposts towards a more just and hopeful world while exercising only limited control over the consequences of their decisions.

Ultimately, of course, the challenges we face are not just about policy, but also about us, about our creeping inability to tolerate any risk in matters personal, professional and political that isn’t guaranteed to succeed.  We should be reminded that the “daring adventure” that is our collective life requires, in part, people who are willing to take the dare, who are committed to deep thinking and bold action, who are prepared to manage carefully and then acknowledge gracefully the intended and unintended consequences of even our best policy efforts.  Within the political limitations of the rooms in which they found themselves, stakeholders at the UN this week seemed more willing than usual to take the dare, to uphold the truth they behold and manage as best they can the consequences of the truth lying (at least for now) a bit beyond their gaze.

At one of the CTED briefings on aviation safety, one of the few questions posed was asked by one of our Global Action interns, who wondered why we struggle as a community with risk assessment, why we spend so much energy running after threats whose challenges seem always one step ahead. For many of our young people, such questioning corresponds to a deep anxiety – that those at the UN and elsewhere currently in charge of global policy don’t often enough “level” with themselves and the rest of us about the state of global affairs as a precursor to deeper commitments to assessing global risk and promoting resilience – resilience in the form of diverse, local actors (including younger actors) with the skills and resolve to create context-specific analyses and responses to the challenges that affect them most directly.

Such honest “leveling” is important, especially for an often suspicious and cautious generation that wonders if we collectively have what it takes to survive current challenges; but that also wonders if they themselves have what it takes to detour from the straight and narrow highway that older persons have often placed them on and embrace that “daring adventure” wherein lies fresh energies, ideas and experiences.  We will need plenty of all three from this generation – and then some – if we are to continue on our “human security” journey: towards honestly analyzing global trends, making and sharing relevant connections, enabling a more diverse array of stakeholders, and managing consequences when our best policy efforts don’t completely work out the way we planned.

Tone Deaf: Restoring Attention to How and What We Influence, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Jul

Tone Deaf

Of course you will insist on modesty in the children, and respect to their teachers, but if the boy stops you in your speech, cries out that you are wrong and sets you right, hug him! Ralph Waldo Emerson

The way glass can be molded or blown or cut into any kind of shape made me think about how we as people – our characters or souls – can be shaped or changed by outside influences. Lisa Kleypas

The squirrel that you kill in jest dies in earnest.  Henry David Thoreau

As readers of this space know, we don’t spend much time analyzing national issues per se except when they begin to overwhelm multilateral space, when implications for national behavior create tensions – or lessons – for that space that we feel need to be highlighted.   We seem to be in one of those moments now with respect to the US and its relationship to the global community. Thus on the eve of the July 4th holiday, we offer a few sobering thoughts on the current state of our wobbly and occasionally destructive national influence.

The departure point for this post is a book that recently crossed my path and then utterly consumed my interest.  “Hitler’s American Model” by James Whitman is a book that I wish I had written, or rather that I wish I had the skill to write.  There is no time or room here for a thorough review of his argument, but in an age characterized by ever-more violent entertainment, gross economic inequalities, apoplectic media personalities and seemingly endless White House images of aging white males and their multilateral hostilities, it is important to take stock of not what we do or fail to do, the influences that our actions and inactions can (and do) have on others.

The premise of the Whitman book is to revisit what was clearly a fascination by German Nazis in the 1930s with what was considered by far too many at the time to be an “innovative” system of race laws – specifically anti-miscegenation laws – that were in vogue in the US and for which the US was dubiously pegged at the time as a “global leader.”   In addition to this particular dimension of influence, Whitman deftly points out the degree to which that fascination spread beyond Jim Crow to the US’s westward conquest of native peoples as well as efforts to maintain “second class citizen” status for some major immigrant groups including Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese.

Whitman both skillfully characterizes this fascination and then carefully delineates the limitations of his analysis.  He does not maintain that Nazi preoccupations represented the only (or even primary) influence to emanate from “New Deal America.” He does not maintain (nor do we) that the US is the source of all racist malevolence in the world.  Nor does Whitman attempt to posit causal linkages between the US “common law” model which reinforced so many efforts to “keep foreign elements out of the gene pool” with what became a mass, grotesque genocidal project aimed at Jews and others.   Ironically, at least in the early years of the Nazi regime, much of US race-based and overtly anti-miscegenation lawmaking was actually deemed “too harsh” by some leading Nazi lawyers, in part a function of the latitude granted to US judges to adjust the law to “real life circumstances,” many such “circumstances” being themselves avowedly and often violently racist.

In telling this difficult story, in positing this uncomfortable relationship, Whitman is claiming not imitation but influence, not “copy-catting” but cutting and pasting.   He is not seeking to blame one state for the conduct of another but is, in an uncomfortably jarring manner, reminding all of us that we bear some deep responsibility not only for what we do, but what our behavior enables in others; not only the damage we create directly via our own initiatives, but the tacit permission to damage that our actions inadvertently or otherwise grant to those within our various “orbits” of influence.

This “news” regarding the complexities and urgencies of influence is not news at all to anyone raising or educating children, settings where occasions for influence are always present and where, as children leave home and school to start their adult sojourns, we are left to ponder whether the content and strength of our influence were indeed calibrated correctly.  Were we the “do as I say, not as I do” parents, the ones who attempted to repair with reproving words the damage caused by our own sometimes willful neglect and self-damaging habits?  Were we the teachers who represented ceilings for students rather than floors and who scorned those who called out our mistakes (in my own case mistakes made several times an hour) rather than applauding them for respecting truth even more than they respect authority?

There is influence-insight here for our geopolitics as well.  Indeed, the continued existence of nuclear weapons is one instance of a security policy grounded in a fundamental hypocrisy:  that the weapons which some states overly rely on for their own national security are somehow grave violations of international law when found in the hands of others.   Indeed, if the current “Ban Treaty” negotiations concluding this week at UN headquarters (negotiations that do not include nuclear weapons possessing states nor many other states whose security is tied to “nuclear umbrellas”) are to truly “move the pile,” it is likely to be in its determination to demystify the general authority and influence of nuclear weapons, undermining both the avowed “need” for these weapons and the signals such weapons send to the rest of the global community. Such “signals” have too-long suggested that our menacing arms race and wildly expensive arms modernization are both self-justifying and worthy of envy by both state and non-state actors alike. In this instance, as is the case with other policies and practices at the UN and in other multilateral settings, we are still pumping out messages to other entities that establish a baseline of influences and permissions that might well fail to serve any national interests, let alone a global interest.

Through our family life, our social policies, our political and legal institutions, and long before the relentless, annoying intrusions of social media, we have been sending complex messages to others, messages that influence what is possible, but also what is permissible.  As the young (still) have their views of the world influenced by families and schools, people from many cultures and walks of life worldwide continue to take their cues from our major global institutions and global capitals. Sadly, some of those contemporary “cues” are coming via the broken politics within and beyond Washington, our unresponsive and predatory economics, our mean-spirited responses to migrants, our massive arms spending, even some of our multilateral policy stalemates and “tone deaf” policy compromises here in New York.

On this 4th of July, we in the US have much of our own to sort out, including leadership in retreat from global challenges and multilateral institutions, our double-standards regarding the legitimacy of armed violence, attempts to gradually dismantle our “rainbow” and replace it with various “shades of white,” and our ongoing, habitual neglect of the people who grow our food, protect our water, serve in our security sector and have largely (and often needlessly) been left behind by the too-rapid assaults of a globalized world.

Each of these concerns represents both an internal tribulation and a clear message that we send out to others, a message not only about what we are prepared to do but also to what we, tacitly or otherwise, have agreed to lend our permission.   Simply put, we all need to be more attentive to how and what we influence, to better ensure that the messages we communicate have consequences with which we are prepared to live.   The Whitman book is a chilling example of what we as a species remain capable of perpetuating once we delude ourselves into thinking that no one else is paying attention.